Edd Merritt

Ban the bombers are afraid of a fight
Peace hurts business and that ain’t right
How do I know? I read it in the Daily News
   ~ Daily News, Tom Paxton

Susan Ohanian sent me a commentary from Todd Smith, publisher of the Caledonian Record, a newspaper for the Northeast Kingdom counties of Caledonia, Essex and Orleans. It was something he had sent to Senator Patrick Leahy asking for help in maintaining the paper in light of the “digital duopoly of Google and Facebook.” The Record, having been the daily newspaper for the Kingdom for over 100 years, was seeing its financial resources dwindling, due somewhat to a shortage of revenue in the region as a whole but also to a change in journalistic endeavor from print media to online sources.

As a journalist in another part of the state, I am concerned about this trend because I think it portends a rift in what I feel is important about maintaining “journalism” and not just the “news media.”

Let me try to explain how I see the difference. Journalism is an intellectual endeavor, one that requires human insight and often academic analysis into content that flows from a collection of data. Smith says that it was “with horror that I read Mark Zuckerberg’s recent editorial calling for government regulation of speech.” That, Smith feels, would take the process out of the hands of those responsible for putting down the written word, the bedrock of a dying industry and, he says, the substance of one element of democracy. By classifying social media companies such as Facebook as technology firms rather than publishers, it “absolves these companies of any responsibility for the content of their platforms.”

“Content” is the key word here. Merriam Webster says that it is the “collection and editing of news for presentation.” “News media,” on the other hand, is an “umbrella term” for “all sources and presentation of news.” It can be TV, radio, newspapers and magazines, webs, blogs or tweets. So, content is what goes on the page; media is how it is transmitted to readers.

Good journalists delve into the data they uncover to give their written word meaning beyond the numbers themselves. The truth is that journalism incorporates people who put the words on the page and must look closely at their audience, determining that what they write is understandable and makes the point(s) they want. Although objectivity is always a goal, what comes out can seldom be called totally objective simply because there is a person communicating through chosen language. Despite that fact, authors should base their writing on facts, be nonpartisan and fair as much as they can.

Journalism has evolved as a communicative practice since the 18th century and could easily die an untimely death with too much government oversight. This may diverge to some degree from the growing liberal base that is promoting more government assessment of matters affecting our nation.

In the last paragraph of his letter, Smith asks Senator Leahy to introduce legislation that makes the companies themselves “responsible for the content on their platform.” It may also seem ironic that this responsibility might either fit or be at odds with some of our president’s misguided attempts at factuality and his personal slant on the context of what he says. But, we do seem to be in the middle of political anomalies, don’t we?

In 1965 Johan Geltung and Mari Ruge studied what they referred to as the “practice of gatekeeping in a context of reporting.” Although their ideas received somewhat mixed reviews at the time, gatekeeping remains important as the impact of digital media gains in practice. I believe a majority of readers want news to be relevant, i.e. attached to the topic and interesting. Gaining relevance is the job of the gatekeepers.

I admit, that while I find papers like The New York Times more adept at delving into the information they print, many other papers find it necessary to make themselves tabloids in order to survive. As a result I read the Times articles and commentaries closely, hoping my own brain can understand the bases on which they impart their information. It reminds me of an excellent practice chronicled in a book by, of all groups, the Harvard Business School faculty, called Education for Judgment. In it they decry the notion of teaching by lecture and suggest that learning on the students’ parts is much better stimulated through “discussion teaching” or dialogue. It makes for a community of learning rather than an individual exercise that may or may not take hold depending on the person. Community, nation, racial or gender-based collective, service order or any body of people emboldened by a cause (yes, even the NRA) should listen carefully to ideas from others and debate them whenever they wish before making their own decisions.

Apparently, Mark Zuckerberg’s stint at Harvard did not incorporate education for judgment because he does not want to be held responsible for what appears under his company’s aegis. Smith, on the other hand, asks Zuckerberg to do his job and our government to do its.

Then again, REM may capsulate it all in lyrics of a song: “World serves its own needs, but hey, don’t mis-serve your own needs.” Even if it’s the end of the world, “I feel fine.”